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Maple Leaf Rag
“It is needless,” wrote his publisher, “to say anything of the writer of ‘Maple Leaf,’ ‘Cascades,’ ‘Sunflower’ or ‘Entertainer.’ You know him.” But this black genius died penniless and all but forgotten
June 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 4
Mr. Joplin asked if my rags were really good. I said, “To me they seem all right—maybe they are not. I don’t know.” He invited me to bring them over to his place. Needless to say, I didn’t waste time.
I went to his boarding house a few evenings later and he asked me to play my pieces on the piano in the parlor. A lot of colored people were sitting around talking. I played my Sensation first and they began to crowd around and watch me. When I finished, Joplin said, “That’s a good rag—a regular Negro rag.” That’s what I wanted to hear. … Joplin liked Sensation best of my first three rags.
Joplin offered to present the “Sensation” manuscript to Stark personally and suggested his name be put on after that of Lamb: “Arranged by Scott Joplin.” It might help to sell his first rag, Joplin thought. A week later Lamb got a check and a contract from Stark. “Then,” Lamb said, “Stark bought Ethiopia and Excelsior together. After that he took any rag I wrote.”
Joplin never ceased to work for the cause of ragtime; in Sedalia before 1900, when he himself had barely published, he taught Scott Hayden and Arthur Marshall, and then by doing a collaborative rag with each got them into the Stark ménage. In St. Louis during his own bad year of 1906 he aided James Scott, very much a potential rival. Then, in Chicago, he saved Chauvin’s scraps of song from oblivion. Finally in New York he launched a young white composer. In the end Joplin justly remains supreme; but he, Scott, and Lamb are the top triumvirate of classic ragtime composers, with Hayden and especially Marshall close behind.
Although New York was now his base, Joplin remained restless or, at least, peripatetic, touring on the Percy G. Williams vaudeville circuit, billed as “King of Ragtime Composers—Author of Maple Leaf Rag.” He appeared as a single, and his playing was excellent though not flashy.
Then at last he brought his loneliness to an end when he met Lottie Stokes and married her, meanwhile writing his first and only published tango. “Solace” is a revealing though undedicated tribute to the peace, support, and consolation she brought him. This was in 1909, and for the rest of his vaudeville bookings she travelled with him. It was during this period, she recalled in 1949, that Joplin’s theatrical trunk was left in Pittsburgh at a boarding house and never reclaimed. According to Lottie it contained unpublished manuscripts, letters, and family photos old and new—the sort of thing that would be manna to a starved biographer. Searched for since 1949 almost as assiduously as The Guest of Honor , the undiscovered trunk is another of ragtime’s mysteries.
The Joplin rags from 1908 on suggest that Lottie Stokes, at last, brought him peaceful love. With her came stability and a haven in which to teach and compose. Her idea of this was a theatrical boarding and rooming house that she would manage without worrying her husband. Their first house was in midtown, on West Fortyseventh Street in the area then known as San Juan Hill because the black population had migrated there from downtown about the time of the Spanish-American War. Later, following the shift uptown of the black community, he and Lottie bought a house in Harlem.
During this 1908–10 New York period Joplin’s piano pieces begin to be colored with gentle, intimate overtones. This quality, more than the steady perfecting of form, defines Joplin’s middle period. All through this period the successive rags develop into individual statements, expressed through Joplin’s outstanding ability to create highly personal and ever-new melodies set forth in constantly surprising new rhythmic patterns. The 1908 “Pineapple Rag” is balladic, almost narrative; “Wall Street,” written the next year, is both amatory and aristocratic, with a soft, secretive, cozening trio; “Country Club” is a study in the alternate ideas of dance and song. And still in the fruitful year of 1909 there is the tango, “Solace,” and “Euphonic Sounds,” which is pronouncedly classic in outlook and so difficult to play that it became a technical test piece for the just-emerging Harlem, or Eastern, style of ragtime. Eubie Blake, Luckey Roberts, Willie “The Lion” Smith, and all the other virtuosos knew “Euphonic Sounds.” In 1949, long after Joplin’s death, the superb technician and gifted composer James P. Johnson was moved to say: “Scott Joplin was a great forerunner. He was fifty years ahead of his time. Even today, who understands Euphonic Sounds’? It’s really modern.”